Monks in Bhutan

Now these monks know the true meaning of solitude.

Being single these days in Asia isn’t the taboo it used to be. I think my mother gave up on me by the time I reached 30. My grandmother never did but then that generation was tougher – every generation says that of the one before them, don’t they?

It certainly hasn’t stopped me from travelling. My first ever flight from Penang to Kuala Lumpur was a solo one and from that moment on, I was hooked to the notion of taking that giant iron bird everywhere.
My first solo trip was backpacking along the West Coast of Malaysia where I went from Penang to Ipoh and ended up in Pangkor Island. I didn’t tell my parents because they would have forbidden it. I just told them I was going camping.

I like travelling alone. I like my freedom to do what I like. I like my own space and privacy. Mostly, I like my solitude. In today’s very busy world wired with distractions, this is a luxury worth fighting and paying for. 

That’s not to say travelling alone doesn’t have its downside. You can watch a beautiful sunset and wished there was someone to share it with. Or you may find yourself the target of strange men.

I remember once window shopping in Milan and an Italian man came up to me and insisted he buy a pair of shoes for me. I didn’t stop to ask him what he wanted in exchange but we did have coffee together and I managed to find out from him the best places to go to in his city. 

There was also a hairy moment in Berlin when a strange man came into my room and scared the living daylights out of me but fortunately, all’s well that ends well and I ended up serving him whisky in my room.
Travelling alone requires you to be resourceful and to turn negatives into positives. 

Being single however doesn’t mean you always have to travel alone. These days I find that I have more and more single friends to travel with – men and women – and each year, we plan a trip together to the more exotic places that we probably wouldn’t want to do alone.

This is one of the advantages of travelling alone. You strike up conversations with people you normally wouldn’t if you were part of a group.

Cities and beach resorts are good alone but destinations like Rajasthan, Yunnan or Bhutan are better done in a small group of like-minded friends. I stress the term “like-minded” because when you have a group of strong-minded singles travelling together, you need to be on the same wavelength otherwise the trip can be full of unnecessary tensions.

Luckily for us, we get along pretty well. We’re all pretty seasoned travellers and if there’s one advantage of age, it tells you to not sweat the small stuff especially when  you are on the road.

My most recent trip was to Bhutan. We were a group of six, five women and one man. Bhutan, to me, is made for the single-minded traveller. It’s a place where you can easily lose yourself in solitude or choose to be together with people. No one judges you.

In resorts, single people tend to stick out. I remember spending one Christmas in Phuket alone because I simply had to get away and the pitying glances I got were enough for me to slit my wrist. Being practical, I ordered room service most nights and watched old movies and thoroughly enjoyed my solo break.

In Bhutan, you can be alone but not lonely. At the Gangtey Palace Hotel in Paro, we met a young Japanese girl who was travelling alone through Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. She hardly spoke English but the fact that she’d made her way solo through these three countries said a lot about her.

She joined our group for breakfast and dinner and we learnt that she had just finished her studies and had always wanted to travel alone to these countries to learn about their culture and people. She’s of a new breed of Japanese girls not afraid to venture out alone, regardless of language barriers. She knows on the road, the kindness of strangers cannot be underestimated.

We also met a young Norwegian man who’s taken up Buddhism and is studying under one of the senior monks in Bhutan. He supports himself by being a tour guide for Scandinavians. Single, he returns to Norway once a year for the summer but spends most of his time travelling through Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet.

This is one of the advantages of travelling alone. You strike up conversations with people you normally wouldn’t if you were part of a group. 

While we moved around as a group, we were free to walk alone. That trek up to the Tango University of Buddhist Studies, just outside Thimpu, was one of the most serene experiences of my life. We all moved at our own solo pace. 

I took time to read the signs, smell the flowers and stop to talk to monks along the way. Then we all gathered at the top to have tea with the student monks who typically after they graduate have to spend three years, three months and three days meditating at a nearby retreat.

Now these monks know the true meaning of solitude.

Another solo walk through the rice fields of Punakha Valley remains burnt in my mind. The cool, gentle breeze blowing through the rice fields made me feel like I was walking on a magic green carpet. Phalluses everywhere made me feel I was at an adult store in Amsterdam but in this part of Bhutan, the phallus is revered and, well, generally “humoured”. Made popular by the Divine Madman, Drukpa Kunley, who basically democratized Buddhism with his eccentric lifestyle and teachings, the symbol is everywhere in Punaka – from temple relics to wall art to key chains. 

I am not sure about the single population in Bhutan but I think this kingdom of happiness probably bucks the global trend in terms of singlehood. It ought to because it certainly bucks the trend in almost everything. 

There are no traffic lights in Bhutan. They had one in Thimpu but that was done away with because people complained it was too impersonal. So they now have a policeman directing traffic at the busiest intersection.

They do not measure Gross National Product but Gross National Happiness, and that’s based on four factors – good governance, culture, socio-economic development and environment.

As a single-minded traveller, I appreciate the Bhutanese single-mindedness about what’s really important in life.

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